For the unaware, Sonar Kella (‘The Golden Fortress’) can be considered to be a rite of passage for any Bengali. Directed (story-written, music-directed, costume-created etc. etc. etc.) by Oscar-winning director Satyajit Ray and starring Soumitra Chatterjee, it is a detective story that almost every Bengali is expected to have seen. Some, like yours truly, remember almost everything in the movie by heart. Set mostly in the Indian state of Rajasthan, it tells the story of a young boy, Mukul, who claims to remember the events of his past life, where he speaks of a Golden Fortress and a possible treasure. A parapsychologist, Dr Hajra, takes a professional interest in the boy, but a failed kidnapping attempt forces the boy’s father to turn to Pradosh Mitter aka Feluda, a private investigator, to protect the boy from harm. This leads to Feluda, his cousin Topshe, and Lalmohan Ganguly aka Jatayu, an aspiring writer whom they meet on the train, to travel across Rajasthan with the boy and Dr Hajra in search for the Golden Fortress and the treasure.
Enough background, on to the point of this post.
A disclaimer first, for those who know the storyline of the film. This post involves no train journey or camel journey whatsoever so you could take it as the route Feluda, Topshe and Jatayu took by car, from Jodhpur to Ramdevra and then the route taken by the driver from Ramdevra to Jaisalmer.
So, on a trip to Rajasthan along with my parents, I found myself in Jodhpur. It was the start of a ten-day long trip through the state over the Christmas holidays. We were making our way back to our hotel after visiting the Mandore fort when I noticed a signboard for the Jodhpur Circuit House. Circuit Houses used to be the only places to stay in small Indian towns 30-40 years back, but the only place I had encountered it before was the film, ‘Sonar Kella’. Something stirred in my memory, and I soon remembered that it was the Jodhpur Circuit House where the Feluda, Jatayu and Topshe first meet Mukul and Dr Hajra. A quick Google search confirmed the same, and we immediately noted the fact that we were about to travel from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer along the same route as taken by the characters in the movie. That’s where the idea that we would be following the ‘Feluda Trail’ first formed in our minds.
We began from the Mehrangarh (or the Mehran Fort) in Jodhpur, which is the first stop the characters in the film take in their journey to find the Golden Fortress. Built around the year 1460 by Rao Jodha, this fort is one of the most well-preserved forts in Rajasthan, with amazingly detailed carvings on the palaces inside and a well-stocked museum. This makes it a very important spot on the tourist circuit in Rajasthan. There’s a room of mirrors inside, which is really cool.
This fort is also seen in the background when Bruce Wayne escapes from Bane’s well prison in the movie The Dark Knight Rises, so that’s two reasons for a film aficionado to visit this place if the draw of the colourful Rajasthan culture wasn’t strong enough.
Something else that I personally loved about the fort was the presence of several traditional style singers, who sang songs from several different parts of India, including some famous songs from Bengal. When asked the reason for this, they said that they are invited to perform at weddings across the country, and that’s how they pick up the local songs. It was slightly weird to hear a Bengali song sung in voices and accents that are distinctively Rajasthani. We were lucky to be visiting Rajasthan in the off-season for weddings. Otherwise, we would not have heard these songs.
In the film, the next part of the journey is from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer. The roads during the journey up to the town of Ramdevra have now been converted to two-lane highways, so we did not encounter the kind of roads seen in the film until we crossed Ramdevra. One interesting thing to note during the journey was the amount of flora around. When the film was shot, there was nothing around but sand, with some very occasional trees, but now there are some trees along the road. Our driver attributed this to the Indira Gandhi canal. The canal project brought greenery to the Thar, to the extent that vegetables can now be grown in the desert.
On reaching Ramdevra, stopped at the railway station – and the stationmaster’s office therein where the film has a ‘detective-moment’ that I will not spoil for those who haven’t seen the film. It didn’t appear to have changed much in the years that have passed after the film came out. In my mind’s eye I could imagine that after nightfall, this place would appear exactly as it does in the film.
I have already mentioned the flora seen on the way, but there was also fauna to be seen. As we neared Jaisalmer, sightings of camels became more and more frequent. On reaching Jaisalmer, we would go on a short camel ride into the desert. As an experiment, I tried to walk fast on the sand, and, because of the pressure I needed to apply, my foot sank right in. On observing the camels walking or running, it is apparent why they are the ships of the desert – their feet hardly sink into the sand! Also, the experience of sitting on a camel’s back while it gets up is quite extraordinary – the back legs go up first, followed by the front legs, and given how long those legs are, it means that there are two violent jerks in two opposite directions that may be quite unnerving to someone who is not expecting it.
From Ramdevra, it’s not long before one reaches Jaisalmer. Unlike the other forts of Rajasthan, the Jaisalmer fort is a residential fort, and a large number of people live inside the walls of the fort. This does make it seem very cluttered in comparison to, for example, Mehrangarh, but it gives the fort a very unique feel. The reason why the name Sonal Kella is appropriate for this particular fort is quickly apparent on seeing the yellow sandstone using which the entire fort is constructed. Still, during the day the golden colour is not that apparent, but during sunrise and sunset, it does look very, very golden.
This is also a good place to note that several of the towns of Rajasthan can be associated with particular colours. It is not just the fort in Jaisalmer that is made out of yellow sandstone – many of the buildings in the town are too, and looking at it from a distance makes the town look yellow. Similarly, Jodhpur is blue, and Jaipur is supposed to be the pink city.
Jaisalmer is also one of the last settlements in India before the Pakistan border, and it used to be an important trade town a couple of centuries back, making it a place where the Marwari businesspeople flourished. A quick look into history tells us that the rise of the British Raj and with it maritime trade and the port of Bombay (now Mumbai) killed the trade and financial importance of the town, and by the mid-1960s, many of the rich traders had left the place. It was also too far from the main tourist routes to attract much attention. A turnaround in its fortunes happened because of two events – India’s first nuclear test happened near Pokharan, which is close-by, and Satyajit Ray made Sonar Kella. According to our guide, the release of the film meant that Bengali tourists began to come to see the golden fortress, and slowly the fort became a tourist destination. Such is the power of a film!
Our guide knew all of the major spots where the shooting of the film took place, and his knowledge of the film surprised us a lot. Laughing about it, he said that he would need to know about the film because the film drove the tourism that is giving people like him their daily bread.
It is therefore ironic that one of the most important spots in the film – the location of the climax – is one of the most poorly maintained spots in the fort. Mukul’s house, while shown to be dilapidated in the movie too, is now even more ramshackle, and a large water tank has now come up around that spot. While changes like this may be inevitable because of the ‘living’ nature of the fort, it would have been nice had locations of importance like that been preserved better.
Satyajit Ray is known to the outside world as one of the greatest film directors of his generation, but in Bengal and particularly among kids too young to appreciate his more mature films, he’s more well-known as an author. For most Bengali children growing up, even today, the first detective fiction and science fiction that they are introduced to are his creations – Feluda and Professor Shonku. My trip to Rajasthan and the above following of the Feluda trail gave me renewed appreciation of Ray’s genius and range as a storyteller and film-maker, and how he was able to take the colour of the fort at a time when it was not very well known at all, and wove a whole travelogue and detective story around it. That is just the result of an absolute master at work.